Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Key question hanging over Biden-Putin talks, what next in Ukraine?

Key question hanging over Biden-Putin talks, what next in Ukraine?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) shakes hands with US President Joe Biden ahead of their talks in Geneva on June 16, 2021; they will hold a virtual meeting on December 7, 2021. AFP

Key question hanging over Biden-Putin talks, what next in Ukraine?

When US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin meet virtually on December 7, the two presidents will have to negotiate a history of mutual suspicion as they take up the urgent issue of a major Russian military buildup on the Ukraine border.

The key question hanging over the talks – and the subject of keen debate among analysts and political leaders – is whether Putin might actually launch a cross-border offensive, or whether he is using the troops to pressure Biden for guarantees ex-Soviet Ukraine will never become a NATO launch pad.

The two have a daunting list of other differences to air, from Russia’s harsh treatment of dissidents to the presence of ransomware hackers on Russian soil to Moscow’s support for the repressive regime in Syria.

But the magnitude of the Russian buildup near Ukraine – the Kremlin may be planning an offensive early in 2022 involving up to 175,000 troops, according to US intelligence obtained by the Washington Post and other outlets – has raised red flags in Washington and across Europe.

Many analysts doubt that Putin would carry through with an invasion – which would inevitably prompt international condemnation and probably new sanctions – but at least some take a darker view.

“Putin has sharply raised the stakes. He is no longer bluffing,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik Centre and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“He’s ready to take a desperate step,” she said on December 5.

Test for Biden

The looming crisis could pose the sternest test yet of the foreign policy savvy and clout of the 78-year-old US president.

Biden and Putin – who are expected to speak around midday December 7, Washington time – have history together.

They first met in person in the Kremlin in 2011. Then-Vice President Biden later said he told the Russian leader, “I don’t think you have a soul” (to which, Biden says, Putin responded, “We understand one another.”)

They met again in 2014 in Geneva to deal with the now familiar issue of Russian military pressure on Ukraine.

And they met in Geneva on June 16 of this year – for the first time with Biden as president.

Contacts have continued since – as have tensions, with Putin seen as eager to pressure Biden into another in-person summit as a way to project parity on the world stage.

On December 3, Biden vowed to make it “very, very difficult” for Russia to launch an invasion, but did not say how.

Putin has warned the West and Kiev against crossing the Kremlin’s “red lines”, including building up weaponry in Ukraine.

Biden later responded, “I won’t accept anybody’s red line.”

Pressure over NATO ties

Some analysts said Russia, deeply concerned with Ukraine’s warming ties to NATO, is applying pressure to cut that movement short.

Following Putin’s lead, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on December 2 called on US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to provide “security guarantees” that NATO would not come closer to Russia’s border.

Stanovaya said this might be Putin’s bottom line: “Either NATO provides guarantees or Russia invades Ukraine,” she said.

Russia has continued to deny any bellicose intentions, instead accusing the West of provocations in the Black Sea.

NATO recognised Kiev in June 2020 as one of a handful of so-called “enhanced opportunity partners”, potentially a step toward membership.

Few options

Heather Conley, a former assistant US secretary of state for European affairs, said she believes Putin is willing to apply “enormous pressure” in the Ukraine standoff.

He is set on another in-person summit with Biden, said Conley, who is with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. And he wants to loosen Western ties to Ukraine which, she said, some see as “a sort of NATO aircraft carrier.”

Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent political analyst close to the Kremlin, said he doubts Biden and Putin will agree on anything concrete on December 7, but he does not expect hostilities to break out if the talks fail.

“No, this is hysteria whipped up by the West,” he said on December 5. “Wars begin suddenly. If it begins, it will begin differently.”

Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has since backed the separatist forces fighting Kiev. The conflict has left more than 13,000 dead.

What if the virtual meeting between the rival leaders goes poorly on December 7?

If Russia fails to obtain the accommodations it seeks, and all efforts at diplomacy fail, said Conley, her sense is that “Mr Putin would then use military means to achieve his political objective.”


  • ‘Education’ a priority traffic-law penalty

    A top National Police official on June 21 neither rejected nor confirmed the authenticity of a leaked audio message, which has gone viral on social media, on a waiver of fines for a number of road traffic-related offences. General Him Yan, deputy National Police chief in

  • Pursat Ford assembly plant opens

    The Kingdom’s first Ford assembly plant was inaugurated on June 16 in Pursat province amid rising demand for brand-new vehicles among Cambodians. The facility is seen as a game changer for the domestic automobile industry, which could bring a wave of investors seeking to cash

  • Siem Reap’s $18M zoo said to educate public, help wildlife

    Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium Co Ltd has invested $18 million in a zoo in Siem Reap province, which will be opened in October to educate and promote animal conservation as well as attract national and international tourists. Currently, the Angkor Wildlife and Aquarium is building the

  • Volunteer scheme to foster ‘virtuous’ humanitarian spirit

    A senior education official said volunteer work contributes to solidarity and promotes a virtuous humanitarian spirit among the youth and communities. Serei Chumneas, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, made the comment during the opening of a training programme called “

  • $50B infrastructure plan en route

    The government’s upcoming $50 billion,10-year infrastructure master plan will provide tremendous investment opportunities for domestic and foreign entities, transport experts and economists say. Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol revealed the plan to Japanese ambassador to Cambodia Masahiro Mikami on June 15. At

  • Chinese firms unveil preliminary results on metro, monorail for capital

    Minister of Public Works and Transport Sun Chanthol and representatives from China Road and Bridge Corp (CRBC) and its parent company, the state-owned China Communications Construction Co Ltd (CCCC), met on June 24 for talks on results of the firms’ preliminary study on a potential metro